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Great Danes

FILMS OF THE WEEK:

Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding as the wronged teacher in The Hunt, above, while Great Expectations, starring Holliday Grainger and Jeremy Irvine, below, stood little hope of ever living up to the title
Mads Mikkelsen is outstanding as the wronged teacher in The Hunt, above, while Great Expectations, starring Holliday Grainger and Jeremy Irvine, below, stood little hope of ever living up to the title

The Hunt (15)

Great Expectations (12A)

Sightseers (15)

Rise Of The Guardians (PG)

Reviewed by Demetrios Matheou

With The Killing returning to Saturday nights to remind us of the quality of Danish television, so The Hunt shows how the country's cinema can rank with the very best. This is a powerhouse of a movie.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a sweet-natured kindergarten teacher who is finally putting his life back together after a difficult divorce. But then a young girl with a strong imagination and some bad influences tells a spiteful lie, which is embraced by teachers, then parents, then the whole community. Parental fear meets bureaucracy to create a witch hunt.

The Danes have a terrific knack of dealing with social and personal subjects without flash or melodrama, but a steely logic that doesn't flinch from the worst-case scenario. As Lucas's life unravels in degrees, each section of the community falling into line against him, so the tension and even horror of his situation builds. And a fairly familiar scenario is given such a powerful rendering that one's indignation in watching is almost painful.

At the heart of it is the marvellous Mikkelsen, whose portrayal of a man so kindly that he barely knows how to defend himself is heartbreaking. Sometimes a contrast of two performances indicates just how good an actor is, and it's worth comparing Lucas with Le Chiffre, Mikkelsen's Bond villain from Casino Royale, who took such relish in lashing away at 007's manhood.

The film represents a welcome return to the top table for former Danish wunderkind Thomas Vinterberg, whose Festen was part of the Dogme movement that kick-started our current interest in all things Scandinavian, but who had struggled to retain the form of that impeccable film. With Mikkelsen by his side, he's definitely rediscovered it now.

Throughout Great Expectations one question persistently entered my mind. Why bother? It may seem churlish to ask this of a conscientiously made British film, in the bicentenary anniversary of Dickens's birth. But there is no escaping the fug of déjà vu. That's always the problem with an oft-adapted classic, of course. In this case, as well as innumerable TV adaptations, there are the films; both the definitive (David Lean's from 1946) and the mediocre (Alfonso Cuaron's modern-day take in 1998) muddy the waters. How many Magwitches or Havishams must we see before familiarity breeds contempt?

For those blissfully ignorant of the tale, it concerns the coming of age of Pip, the poor orphan whose life is transformed by a mysterious benefactor, yet finds no grace or happiness in the life of a gentleman.

It is marked, at least, by performances of appropriately Dickensian full-bloodedness. Ralph Fiennes has the right combination of threat and pathos as Magwitch, the escaped convict who takes a shine to the young boy who gives him food and aid; Helena Bonham Carter is entertainingly barking as Miss Havisham, the time-ravaged recluse who sees in Pip yet another heart to break, and uses her adopted daughter Estella (Holliday Grainger) to do the damage; Robbie Coltrane is a watchful, ambiguous Jaggers, the lawyer who administers the young man's new estate; and Jason Flemyng is touching as the kindly blacksmith Joe Gargery, much maligned by his social-climbing friend.

Though Jeremy Irvine is not terribly engaging as the older Pip, the best aspect of the adaptation is the handling of his character's gradual maturity; his dealings with Estella and Magwitch become quite moving. Director Mike Newell handles the period detail well enough, though one can never escape the sense of his striving and failing to recalibrate the tale.

In stark contrast, Sightseers is the third film by one of the most original young directors in British cinema, Ben Wheatley. Like Down Terrace and Kill List, it is dark, unconventional, almost impossible to characterise and wholly memorable. And if you like your comedy twisted, it is very, very funny.

Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) are a new couple embarking on their first holiday together, a caravan trek around the country to some of Chris's favourite sites. The couple seem made for each other, he ginger and bearded, she mousy and meek, with a penchant for knitted underwear.

One suspects that Tina is less enthused by the prospect of the Critch Tram Museum and the Keswick Pencil Museum than she is the opportunity to escape the clutches of her monstrous mum. Unfortunately, she has merely exchanged one monster for another – for Chris is a nerd with a dangerous temper, a man whose responses when someone drops a wrapper on the tram, or bags the best spot in the caravan park are, let's say, a mite excessive.

The film's stroke of genius is Tina's response to her realisation of Chris's true character. And what starts as the sort of cruel comedy of manners that Mike Leigh might make becomes something quite different, a tongue-in-cheek British Badlands. As well as turning in a couple of truly creepy performances, Oram and Lowe co-wrote the script, which includes some outrageously un-PC treatment of a cute little hound.

Rise Of The Guardians is an excellent animated children's film with a festive bent, as a team of unlikely superheroes – Father Christmas, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Jack Frost – save the world from the Bogey Man. A fable about the power of belief, it's smart, funny, beautifully animated and well-voiced (Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Hugh Jackman), with some imaginative spins on our beloved childhood myths.

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